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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Postcard from Phnom Penh

Undated 2023

Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, has been transformed out of all recognition in the last twenty years. When this author first visited Cambodia over twenty years ago, there was only one paved road in the entire city and that was the road from the airport. Since then the city has undergone unimaginable transformations, now being a mixture of traditional, colonial, Buddhist and royal architecture; a series of skyscrapers and a handful of international hotel chains; a whole new district of the city containing a series of modern government buildings; and shanty towns sitting cheek by jowl amongst the new wealth.

The entire country has benefited from a massive influx in foreign investment, virtually all of it the result of the canny political manoeuvrings of the man who is the effective founder of modern Cambodia, Hu Sen, who has been the ruler of the country for the past 32 years. A former Khmer Rouge soldier who defected from extremist Maoism that murdered the urban middle and upper classes by forcing them agricultural labour including making them take the place of horses in pulling ploughs, he then became a Soviet communist and founded the Cambodian People's Party and then gradually transformed himself into a centrist advocate of free market reform. Although Hu Sen has been the subject of much criticism, it is his achievements in attracting, managing and maintaining foreign investment in Cambodia that have resulted in the country's transformation from a low-income post-conflict zone to a middle income country.

Hu Sen has a notoriously raucous and dark sense of humour, which has caused him to be the subject of some controversy. He once infamously remarked that if the EU reneged upon a trade deal, then he would murder the Opposition. (They did renege on the deal; he did not murder anyone). He has also recently become hostile to social media, threatening to ban Facebook in Cambodia (although it is not obvious that he is actually going to carry through on this threat). That is because Hu Sen has managed to dominate Cambodia's democratic system for the most part through his control over and funding of the print media and television media, and as in many emerging democracies he sees social media as a political force that it is more difficult for him to control. Nevertheless he remains genuinely popular with the Cambodian people, for the most part from rural areas as opposed to the new middle class that has emerged within Phnom Penh.

Moreover although Hu Sen dominates much of the traditional media, it is hard to say that there is no substantial freedom of speech in Cambodia. The internet is awash with criticisms of the ruling regime and rude remarks about Cambodia and her infrastructure, and unlike some countries in the region this sort of criticism appears to be tolerated. It is this author's tentative view that many of the criticisms of the Cambodian ruling regime are to an extent overstated, perhaps based upon the fact that Hu Sen himself, evidently quite a character, is prone on occasion to hyperbole. Hu Sen appears to exercise his dominance not through totalitarianism, but rather via careful orchestration and control of the dominant financial interests in the country. He may well be Cambodia's richest man, although he would probably deny it. Anyway his scorecard speaks for itself: economic development has been extremely significant under Hu Sen and that in no small part derives from the fact that he has succeeded in attracting international investors in both private and aid / development sectors.

There are residual problems in the legal and judicial sectors, that have been the subject of international criticism. However such problems exist throughout the region, and the establishment of legal and judicial reforms always lags behind other aspects of economic development, particularly where (as in the Cambodian case) there has been a substantial investment of international capital and concomitant economic growth. Cambodia undoubtedly needs to enter a period of institution-building, and that might be a renewed focus for international development assistance. It is never easy, particularly when one is trying to develop legal institutions from so low a base. It requires great expertise, both generally in terms of institution building and specifically in terms of the legal history and culture of the region. Legal and judicial reform is almost inevitably one of the most challenging aspects of working in the field of development economics.

Along with its accruing wealth, a dark side has emerged in Phnom Penh. An enormous nightlife scene has emerged, the vast majority of it based upon cheap prostitution and other vice aimed at lower class tourists. Phnom Penh has emerged as a major nightlife destination, but the nightlife this author has experienced is virtually all of it (aside from that found in the major international hotels) uniformly seedy. The city has also acquired an air of violence and danger at night, which it never used to have. These are unfortunate incidents of economic growth and liberalisation that has inevitably led to substantial inequalities and large influxes of people from rural areas, in particular young women, seeking to make money through selling their bodies. Police regulation of the bulging nightlife scene in Phnom Penh is virtually non-existent, so those who wish to participate in what is probably now the second most thriving nightlife scene in the region after Bangkok should take the utmost care.

Politics and business mix in Phnom Penh, and the successful politicians around Hu Sen have also become the principal industrialists and financiers in the new Phnom Penh that has emerged. You will meet these people in the bars and restaurants of the international business chains, and you will observe the uniformly expensive four wheel drive cars that this new upper class travel in whereas the rest of the city travels around for the most part on dilapidated motorbikes. There are very few travel options in between. Public transport is almost completely non-existent (although an airport train has emerged), and taxis are not easy to find. Private motor rickshaws (Tuk-Tuks) have become ubiquitous but their drivers are usually not from the city and they are very unlikely to know where your desired destination is. These vehicles are also a health hazard and a source of ceaseless dispute about the correct fare (of course they have no meters), so again take care.


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